Wednesday 18 May 2022

On demand: "Hope"

Norwegian writer-director Maria Sødahl'
s Hope starts out as Aspirational Scandie Lifestyle Drama 101. Middle-aged theatre director Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig) returns from overseeing her latest professional success to spend the Christmas break in her gorgeously furnished home with her eminently photogenic family. Then Sødahl hits us with the bad news: having survived an earlier bout with lung cancer, Anja is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, forcing her to rethink her entire approach to the holiday season and what remains of her life. Who to tell? When to tell them? The premise sounds vaultingly bleak, but the film starts to grip as something like a domestic procedural: an account of a woman navigating an already demanding period, and attempting to cling onto the resource locked into that title while simultaneously negotiating with the timebomb in her head. If that still sounds a hard-going, potentially punitive evening's viewing, then a) let me reassure you that it isn't, and b) consider the opening epigraph, which appears to serve as a director's note: "This is my story as I remember it." Maybe the heroine of a story such as this doesn't have to die. And maybe this is a spoiler - hopefully, an encouraging one - but you'd have to be a mean sonofabitch to call your film that if there was nothing to be hopeful about.

Granted, there's a level of privilege at play within this narrative, which - to her credit - Sødahl never thinks to hide. When Anja runs out of the kitchen to hide her upset from her family, she has a choice of three well-appointed bedrooms to escape into. (One set of bookshelves will likely have any bibliophiles firing up the roofrack and flooring it to their nearest IKEA.) But Hope also works in asides and observations that just wouldn't be in the literature typically handed to cancer patients. Look at Anja cramming her face with leftovers on Christmas morning: one advantage of knowing you may not have long for this world is that you no longer really have to watch your waistline. (Later, she will reveal that food is the only thing staving off the nausea caused by the steroids she's on.) Similarly, you may snort at the scene in which Anja tells the dentist's receptionist who keeps calling her in the midst of this crisis to delete her records, on the grounds "my teeth don't matter". Priorities shift. Much of the drama here has a lived-in, lived-through quality that goes some way beyond most afternoon TV movies on this subject. You see it most clearly in the depiction of Anja's cobbled together family, with its children and stepchildren, and Stellan Skarsgård on gruffly indifferent form as the type of bedmate some viewers won't be entirely certain they'd want to leave their offspring with. (I mean - jeez - one of them might grow up to star in The Northman.)

Because this is a Scandie drama, inevitably it has traces of Bergman in its DNA, stray muscle memories of Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander and Scenes from a Marriage; and because this is a Scandie drama about theatre folk, Sødahl almost inevitably has to raise the spectre of infidelity, presented as one more thing for everyone on screen to be dealing with. But one of the miracles the film bears witness to is that Anja's plight touches something deep down inside Skarsgård's Tomas; if her condition remains in the balance right through to the film's closing seconds, we can at least be cheered - maybe even stirred - by the sight of a relationship coming back to life, either out of a fear of waking up alone or a sincere desire to right some previous wrongs. Sødahl makes canny use of Skarsgård's apparent impermeability: Tomas is weather-beaten and hard to crack, but that may also make him the kind of rock you need when every conversation you have is literally a matter of life and death. Still, there's no doubt he can be hard work. As Anja asks him, late in her hour of greatest need, "Did it take a death sentence for you to finally forget about yourself?" 

That's a good, incisive line - one of many in a generally unflinching screenplay - and yet another point where Bræin Hovig can be observed acing one of the year's most complicated acting assignments. Because Anja, finally, is a complicated woman, and it's only fleetingly clear how much that complication is inherent, how much is due to her situation, and how much is down to the medication. Scene by scene, Bræin Hovig gets the levels right. Heaven knows I've lamented the way the cinema has retreated from the real in recent times, and lambasted those filmmakers who've failed in their duty to come up with anything flesh-and-blood grown-ups can relate to on anything more than the most superficial level. A film like Hope arrives as a beacon, a genuine alternative, and an antidote to the 500 other movies released in the past twelve months that have had nothing whatsoever going on under their digital skin. Sødahl and her collaborators have done an exceptionally detailed and tender job with tough personal material - and my God, if you were unlucky enough to occasion a prognosis such as this, and felt up to the challenge, this would absolutely be a film to put on in your darkest hour. It really isn't called that for nothing.

Hope is currently available to rent via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and YouTube, and on Blu-Ray via Picturehouse Entertainment.

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